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Why numbers on jerseys matter less than ever as rugby progresses

The return of rugby in New Zealand underlined that Eddie Jones might have been ahead of the curve again.

EDDIE JONES CAN certainly misjudge it badly when it comes to his words in the media but the fact that he has become a figure of ridicule in some quarters is, well, ridiculous.

The 60-year-old has shown a consistent ability to adapt over the course of his 26-year professional coaching career, something that other coaches even at the very top of the game haven’t possessed.

Jones has had consistent success in rugby and while some principles have persisted across his entire time as a coach, the Australian has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to change.

eddie-jones Eddie Jones is one of rugby's great thinkers. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Jones might find it hard to resist taking jabs every now and then but it’s usually worth listening to him speaking about the game, something he has been doing a lot more of during the lockdown.

One of the England head coach’s current themes is that of ‘hybrid’ players who will be able play in multiple positions: Jack Nowell in the back row, Tom Curry possibly in midfield, Ben Earl having the skills to feature on the wing.

While it’s obvious that rugby will always require specialist players – very few people can scrummage in the front row, for example – Jones certainly appears to be onto something.

Increasingly in rugby, we are seeing the lines between positions blurring as the very best players become increasingly proficient at a wider range of skills and open-minded coaches encourage them to break out of previous moulds.

We saw a few examples of players performing roles that might not traditionally have been expected of them in Super Rugby Aotearoa over the weekend.

Below, Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara lifts at the front of a lineout.

TJ

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Naturally enough, the Blues wouldn’t expect Perenara to be centrally involved in the lift and the Hurricanes win the ball at the front. Backs in lineouts isn’t a new concept of course and we’ve seen some memorable examples of that in Ireland.

Openside flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi acts in the traditional scrum-half role as the ‘receiver’ just behind the Canes’ lineout but, as we can see above, his pass is poor.

Kirifi passed from five of the 10 Hurricanes lineouts while he was on the pitch, with scrum-half Perenara often setting up as first receiver out in the backline, but Kirifi’s passing was poor throughout and stifled whatever plans Jason Holland’s team had.

It wasn’t until Ardie Savea came off the bench for his injury comeback that we saw greater passing accuracy from this slot, albeit just twice in the four Canes lineouts after he was introduced.

AS

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When a forward is in the receiver position as Savea is above, there is generally an expectation that the attacking team will maul but the All Blacks flanker’s passing opens up different options.

This is a role Billy Vunipola has been carrying out superbly for Saracens and Jones’ England in recent years, providing them with greater variety in their lineout attack.

The fact that Perenara lined up as first receiver from many of the Hurricanes’ lineouts also underlines a development beyond traditional roles, while the All Black even finished the game by actually moving to out-half as replacement scrum-half Jamie Booth came on to score a try.

During this year’s Six Nations, we saw England scrum-half Ben Youngs acting as the first receiver from a dummy maul as flanker Curry passed from the lineout.

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We also saw Ireland experimenting with positioning scrum-half Conor Murray beyond the 15-metre lineout as a first receiver from lineouts in this year’s championship.

Elsewhere in Super Rugby Aotearoa’s opening weekend, we saw players who are not renowned as breakdown specialists offering big moments in that area.

As discussed on Monday’s rugby podcast for members of The42, the breakdown was an area of great intrigue last weekend – something we will return to in depth in the coming weeks as a clearer picture of the fresh refereeing interpretations emerges.

It was a busy weekend in terms of breakdown turnovers and Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie delivered three of them as part of an excellent individual performance.

DM

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McKenzie works hard to chase his own kick here and gets into a position to assist in the tackle on the Highlanders’ Mitch Hunt before looking to work back to his feet and compete for the turnover.

McKenzie clearly uses his hands on the ground to get into position but referee Paul Williams is more concerned with Highlanders lock Pari Pari Parkinson’s side entry and awards the Chiefs a penalty.

With his breakdown effort having earned a penalty, McKenzie then slots the three points. The All Blacks playmaker’s two other turnovers also came on kick chase.

Below, we can see Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith earning a turnover penalty for his side after Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown knocks-on, regathers, and fails to release as Smith jackals.

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The Highlanders kick this penalty into the right corner and score with a cohesive maul drive, underlining just how important Smith’s breakdown contribution has been.

McKenzie is 5ft 9ins and around 83kg, while Smith is 5ft 7ins and the same weight, but they show that even the smallest players can contribute in an area they traditionally wouldn’t have and possibly even would have been expected to avoid at all costs.

Away from the set-piece, we know that Kiwi forwards are renowned for their relatively strong passing skills and we saw some fine fresh examples of that last weekend.

The superb Chiefs try from an initial midfield scrum finished by Sean Wainui in the first half involved two passes from forwards.

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20-year-old second row Tupou Vaa’i and blindside flanker Luke Jacobson are the two Chiefs forwards involved in this delightful string of seven passes from right to left.

Of course, forwards being able to pass the ball is nothing new but it will continue to be more and more important as defences also continue to improve. Players without passing skills will be genuine liabilities to any attack.

Another aspects of forwards’ play that will likely develop in the coming years is kicking.

Traditionally, forwards have sometimes been actively discouraged from kicking the ball but many open-minded coaches have altered their views. Kicking is an increasingly important tool for finding space, creating tries, and applying pressure, so it seems ludicrous to have only one or two players in any team who are capable of doing it.

Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles – who took his superb try like a wing rather than a front row player – was the only forward to attempt a kick last weekend.

DC

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Coles could perhaps have been more conservative here and attempted to drive back infield with the ball in hand, but his decision to kick is a sound one with no Blues cover positioned in behind.

The execution is slightly off but the chip could have led to a try-scoring chance for the Hurricanes. The hope is Coles isn’t discouraged.

Earlier this year, we saw Blues number eight Hoskins Sotutu – a revelation in 2020 – deliver a try assist with a grubber kick.

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Sotutu is clearly under relatively little pressure here and possibly could have passed to the overlap but he instead decides that a well-weighted grubber is the clearest path to delivering a try for wing Mark Telea.

During this year’s Six Nations we saw England lock George Kruis grubber-kicking the ball on two occasions, including this effort against Ireland.

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It’s easy to laugh and think that Kruis shouldn’t be kicking the ball but, again, the decision is a good one.

Ireland fullback Jordan Larmour [white below] is not in the backfield after advancing up and losing an aerial contest, while left wing Jacob Stockdale [red] is closing up on the left edge and right wing Andrew Conway [yellow] is wide right in the backfield.

GK

There is clear space for Kruis to kick into, potentially allowing the lightning-quick Jonny May to chase, but his execution is poor.

That Kruis even considered kicking is impressive and clearly he wasn’t discouraged from trying something similar again, as the big second row delivered a grubber kick in the clash with Wales a few weeks later.

If Eddie Jones has his locks thinking about kick space, he may well be ahead of the curve again.

It would, of course, be remiss of us not to mention one of the all-time great kicking forwards at this point.

KW

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Keith Wood was well and truly ahead of his time.

Rugby will always require specialist players and it’s certainly necessary for players to be particularly proficient in certain skills depending on their positions.

But it’s also clear that the lines are blurring and numbers on jerseys matter less than ever as the game progresses. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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